K-12 Teaching and Learning From the UNC School of Education

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Oral history in the classroom
Oral history lets students learn about history from the people who lived it. This series of articles will show you how to bring oral history into your classroom, whatever grade you teach.
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  • Oral history and student learning: Oral history enriches historical knowledge; enhances research, writing, thinking, and interpersonal skills; gives students a connection to the community; and helps all students feel included.
  • The value of oral history: Why use oral history with your students? Oral history has benefits that no other historical source provides.
  • North Carolina American Indian stories: In this lesson students will select and read stories from some of the North Carolina American Indian tribes. They will compare and contrast two stories of their choice and complete a Venn diagram. Students will use the information on the Venn diagram to write three paragraphs. After reading several American Indian tales or legends, students will then create their own legend using the narrative writing process.

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Oral history can deeply enrich the classroom experience, even if teachers don’t have time to launch a full-scale oral history project. At every grade level, there are ways in which social studies and, indeed, other academic disciplines can be enriched by the inclusion of oral sources and the perspectives on the past and on human interaction that can be gleaned from oral history.

Oral history in the primary curriculum (K–3)

The K–3 social studies curriculum is centered on the world that is familiar to young learners — their families, neighborhoods, and communities. Because the subject matter is already familiar and often comfortable for students in these grades, students may feel comfortable integrating oral history into their classroom experience.

Interviewing one another

As kindergartners learn that people are alike and different, and as older primary grade students expand that knowledge to include families, neighborhoods and communities, they can turn to one another as their first source of information. By interviewing each other about their own experiences, families, neighborhoods, and communities, students can expand their understanding of the world around them and also develop important social skills. Students might make lists of experiences and ideas that they shared with their interview partner, and experiences and ideas that were different in their two sets of experiences.

School-based projects

In primary grades, it makes sense to start the process of oral history in small ways — first inviting students to interview each other and slowly expanding to include communities in which they are comfortable. Their own school might provide an ideal setting for a small oral history project. For example, second graders could choose their school as a setting in which to analyze "multiple roles in families, work places, neighborhoods, and communities." The class might create a list of roles within the school and then find an interviewee for each role. Teams of students could develop questions and then interview their subjects about their roles and responsibilities on the campus and what they most like about their participation in the school community. Students could share what they learned in a bulletin board display for the whole school, group presentations, a short book about the school, or simple class discussion.

Interviewing guest speakers

Young children enjoy hearing from guest speakers in their community, whether on a field trip, in an assembly, or in the classroom. In discussing community services in a kindergarten class, for example, you might invite a firefighter, animal control officer, librarian, or nurse to come to your class. By talking with students about good oral history practice before the interviewee arrives, you can help them write good, open-ended questions and think about the need for attentive listening. With this preparation, students will be able to satisfy their curiosity about these community roles and also begin to practice the sometimes scary but also tremendously rewarding process of interviewing people they don’t know in a safe environment.

Listening stations

While students in the primary grades may lack the planning, writing, and social interaction skills required for a major oral history project — or even for isolated interviews — they can still benefit from oral history materials. Pre-made tapes from archives, or recorded by teachers or other community members, can be made available at listening stations where students can hear stories about their community’s past. Themes drawn from the curriculum, such as the relationship between people and their government (stories about voting, for example) or changes in families (stories about when families moved, added new members, etc.) could form the basis for these oral history narratives. After listening to stories, students could summarize them in writing, compare different experiences, or represent them in artistic form.

Model interviews

Consider interviewing guests or experts in front of the class yourself, then opening up the discussion for student questions. Your interviewing skills will model good oral history practice and encourage students to ask good questions — especially if you’ve spoken with the class about asking good questions prior to the guest’s arrival. If the interview is recorded as well as presented "live," it could be made available at a listening station for students who missed the activity or who would like to reflect on it further, perhaps using the tape as the basis for a writing assignment, role-playing activity, or art project. The tape could also go into your own private archive of classroom oral histories for use in future years.

Oral history in the elementary curriculum (4–5)

The elementary curriculum expands children’s understanding of social studies beyond what is already known and familiar to them, starting with the state of North Carolina and then learning more about the rest of the world. As students seek to understand a state, a nation, and a hemisphere that is largely outside their personal sphere of experience, oral history can make the unfamiliar seem less foreign and intimidating and make the experiences of people hundreds or even thousands of miles away seem more immediate and real. Numerous curriculum objectives for the 4th and 5th grades can be met using oral history as a teaching tool:

Many of the possible activities for use in primary classrooms will also work well with elementary grades, but students in the 4th and 5th grades may also be able to take on more responsibility for conducting interviews themselves, either in a classroom setting or at home with family members and friends of the family.

Topical interviews

Students in elementary grades may be able to tackle more focused and complex projects, such as a series of topical interviews. For example, students could choose a controversial situation and interview adults in their lives about the ethical and moral dilemmas that those situations pose. These interviews could form the basis for a class discussion or class letter to a local leader about possible solutions to those dilemmas, or could result in a culminating paper, display, or performance.

Combining curricula

Students in elementary grades might benefit from combining an oral history project in social studies with other kinds of classroom activities. When students are learning about the various ways people in the past have used, modified, or adapted to their physical environment and are analyzing the causes and consequences of the misuse of the physical environment, students could plan interviews with guest speakers from park services, farms, or environmental groups. In the process, they would be learning about soil conservation, erosion, soil fertility, ecosystems, and other related science and ecological issues. By coming into contact with issues across the curriculum, students can see firsthand the ways in which different academic disciplines approach the same problem, and may even make observations of their own about the benefits of approaching an issue from a variety of angles.

Broadening horizons

While the primary curriculum deals mostly with the familiar, the elementary curriculum challenges students to broaden their world view to include people as far away as Chile and Montreal. Oral history can help build bridges between students’ familiar world of home and family and the seemingly-distant lives of people outside their personal sphere by helping students connect to people different from themselves. Inviting guest speakers from other countries, speakers from other parts of the United States, or speakers who have traveled extensively can allow students to conduct oral history interviews in small groups. Advance preparation will allow students to read about the topic beforehand, prepare good questions, and enter an otherwise potentially intimidating situation more confidently.

Communities in transition

In communities that are rapidly changing, oral history can help students understand the issues at stake in those changes. By conducting interviews with family members or people in the community about changes such as the influx of people from other states, immigration from foreign countries, deindustrialization, and the increased availability of new products, entertainment, literature, art, and ideas through television and the Internet, fifth grade students not only achieve curriculum goals, but they also begin to make sense of the changes that they are seeing in their own lifetimes — changes that might otherwise seem, on one extreme, irrelevant to people their age or, at the other extreme, confusing, frightening, or overwhelming.

Oral history in the middle school curriculum

The middle school curriculum challenges students to relate to other cultures and countries around the world throughout history, and then it brings them figuratively "back home" to a more in-depth study of North Carolina through the state’s history. The following curriculum objectives seem especially well-suited to exploration through oral history:

Continuing the process begun in primary and elementary grades, middle school students are challenged to broaden their understanding of the world around them still further to include much of the rest of the world. They are also challenged to understand their home state on a much deeper level than their earlier exposure in the 4th grade required. To meet those challenges, some of the activities suggested for primary and elementary grades would be perfectly appropriate for middle school students as well, especially if they are paired with an exposure to other sources of historical information such as textbooks, maps, newspaper articles, online "digs" for additional information, or primary documents.

Making the distant relevant

Listening to oral testimonies, either recorded by students themselves or borrowed from archives, documentaries, or other sources, may make distant events like the fall of apartheid in South Africa or human rights issues in Asia become more real and urgent in the minds of students. Students could read about a particular issue in available newspaper coverage, listen to recordings of people from the relevant countries discussing life in their homelands, and then stage a debate or mock hearing on the central issues.

Family history

As students seek to understand the Great Depression, World War II, the Civil Rights Movement, and other issues in North Carolina history, they could interview grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, or other family members about those topics to gain a more personal perspective on what can seem like "ancient history." Students may also find that the experience of interviewing a family member, while sometimes challenging, can also add a new dimension to their personal relationship with their interviewee.

Extended project

As students undertake 8th grade curriculum goals, they could pursue a full-fledged oral history project. Of course, with eighth graders, issues of transportation may prohibit having students travel to meet with interviewees off-site, but inviting interviewees to come to the school or encouraging students to reach out to their own personal networks of possible interviewees (relatives, neighbors, friends of the family, church members, coaches, coworkers of their parents) could allow students to interview several people about the same event. Students could then compare the responses they received from interviewees and compile the results of their interview experiences in an exhibit, a volume of ethnopoetic transcriptions or monologues, a performance, analytical essays, or other presentations.

Oral history in the high school curriculum

The high school curriculum encompasses a variety of courses that broaden students base of knowledge well beyond their home communities. Generally, high school students are capable of tackling more complex, long-term projects and analyzing and presenting oral history materials (both those brought to class for their use and those that they create themselves) in more sophisticated ways than students in earlier grades. Using oral history in these grades can also prepare students for possible similar projects at the college level — many university faculty members use oral history in U.S. history survey courses. These competency goals give a sense of just a few of the many objectives that can be achieved through oral history at the high school level:

Again, the activities suggested for earlier grades may well be appropriate for high school students, but these more advanced learners may also be ready for more complex oral history assignments:

Life history interviews

Students could choose to interview someone much older than themselves, perhaps several times, using their interviewee’s life history as a window into a variety of past events in a U.S. History course. They might keep a journal that compares how their interviewee remembers various events such as World War II, the Civil Rights Movement, and Vietnam with the impressions they gather from other class stories. They might also use this life history interview (or interview series) as the basis of a term paper that makes an argument about what the student believes is the most significant theme in twentieth century American history.

Topical interviews demonstrating diverse viewpoints

Students could conduct interviews on closely-defined topics — for example, a World History class studying U.S.-Soviet relations might interview Americans about their views about the Soviet Union during the Cold War and then compare those views to what they know about the former Soviet republics from their studies. U.S. History students studying World War II might choose to develop a relationship with a local retirement community as a class and interview residents about the war, culminating in a slideshow/tape presentation, panel discussion, or other public event at the center. By zeroing in tightly on a given topic and interviewing a variety of people about that topic, high school students could begin to develop a sense of the subjectivity of historical experience, the complexities and challenges of human memory, and the ways in which variables such as race, class, region, gender, age, or political affiliation might shape both experience and memory.

Presentation options, in the classroom and outside it

Because of their more advanced age and academic achievement, high school students have available to them a broader range of possibilities for the presentation of oral history materials than their younger peers. High school students could use pre-recorded interviews or their own to develop analytical publications, creative writing projects, websites, performances, documentary films, PowerPoint presentations, slide shows, exhibits, ethnopoetic displays, and more. High school students often also have the confidence that might allow them to bring their presentations to a public audience — they might present their materials to parents, interviewees, and/or the general public in a culminating celebratory event, a public display in a library or their school, a presentation for their interviewees, a public performance, or a website accessible outside the school intranet.